As my wife and I drove across the border into Ohio this past week, she had a remarkable insight. She does that.
"If we were explorers or pioneers, and had no previous understanding that trees do this [she pointed at the leafless, dormant trees that lined the highway and frozen fields], can you imagine how it would seem?"
She went on to explain her question. To the uneducated eye the whole landscape, stretched in browns under a winter grey sky, looks dead. With the exception of a few pine trees and their sporadic dots of green, everything looks dead or dying. To the uninitiated, it would seem like something bad had happened. Like a bomb had gone off, or disease had swept across the whole country and all but those last green survivors were gone. And soon, you'd expect, even they'd follow. You would have every reason to believe death had had its way and you'd want out of there.
But because we don't have uneducated, uninitiated eyes- much the opposite since we grew up where there are deciduous and coniferous trees, and know almost instinctively that trees "do this" from about October through March- no sense of fear or grief followed. A vague sense of yuck (if you know Ohio in winter, you may very well know this yuck) but not despair.
Just wait. Spring will set things right. Winter's a season, not a final state.
Deciduous trees shed their leaves (the Latin decidere means to "fall down" or "fall off"). And Coniferous (cone-bearing) Evergreens are as their name implies. This is Kindergarten stuff. We know it at our core. But without this knowledge what is temporary would have the convincing appearance of permanence. We inherently assume a cycle without evening knowing we do, though a finality is better supported by the immediate evidence.
As people of faith, we would do well to show ourselves initiated into the cyclical ways of pain and grief. Discomfort and hardship can't be avoided, but neither are they final. It's naive to think a legitimate goal in life is the avoidance of falling down or off. And it's equally childish to believe that falling is the end. As people of faith, one of our unique markers is that we understand and live our lives deciduously, though others may look at the immediate evidence and live theirs like winters are the end.
We do not delude ourselves into living like difficulty can, or even should, be avoided. Nor do we let difficulty have the last word. We live in the unending cycles of joy and sorrow, of work and rest, of laughter and weeping, of faith and doubt, of life and death. This is human life. The real misery comes when we believe faith is perpetual Spring (because it isn't) or that the hardship we're currently experiencing is the end of the story (also not the case). Living deciduously is way of seeing- embracing!- the cycles, the light and the dark, as necessary components of one reality. To live trying to cling to one and avoid the other, to fear having the one and fear losing the other, or to see one as a divine reward and the other as punishment, or any other failure to appreciate the natural cyclicality of reality, is a recipe for an anxious, desperate existence.
You have some things going well in your life. The leaves will someday fall off of it. This is nothing to become anxious or fretful or clingy about. That's just how it goes. Enjoy it.
You have some things that have gone to hell in a handbag. Someday, those seemingly dead branches will look like life again. It may be a long winter. But it's still a season. Those branches will sprout again. This is nothing to escape the present over. Learn from it, fearlessly, so when Spring arrives you might initiate and educate (experientially rather than conceptually) others who think the leafless trees in their lives are forever dead.
Living deciduously is choosing to live in devout rhythm. These rhythms are reality, one crafted by God.
And so, may what's true for God's unthinking, unanxious trees be true for us.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
The Calf Path
Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911)
One day, through the primeval wood,
a calf walked home, as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail, as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tail.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o'er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him too,
As good bellwethers always do.
And from that day, o'er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made,
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because 'twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed- do not laugh-
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.
The forest path became a lane,
That bent and turned and turned again.
This crooked lane became a road,
What many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city's crowded thoroughfare,
And soon the central street was this,
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half,
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed that zigzag calf about,
And o'er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They follow still his crooked way,
And lose one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
The follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a scared groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah, many things this tale might teach-
But I am not ordained to preach.